​Stepping out: A history of high heels

High heels have come to symbolize sexuality and power
High heels have come to symbolize sexuality a... 06:23

WALKING TALL at the Oscars need not be a challenge for any actress; all she needs is the right footwear. Here's Erin Moriarty of "48 Hours":

Walking the red carpet isn't really about walking at all.

"The night I won the Emmy, I wore a Zuhair Murad sparkly dress and Prada heels," said actress Kristin Chenoweth. "So I kind of look at Prada as my, like, good-luck charm.

At four feet, 11 inches, Chenoweth can stand tall in heels.

"They kill your feet after four hours, but it's worth it," she said. "If you can't hang in a pair of heels doing a red carpet, then you shouldn't be in show business. That's what I think!"

Clearly, high heels have legs. From Marilyn Monroe to Lady Gaga, to celebrities at awards shows, high heels have come to symbolize sexuality and power.

Curator Lisa Small says she would be hard-pressed to think of another women's fashion accessory that has as complicated, polarizing, fascinating and enduring a history as the high-heeled shoe.

Which is why Small helped create an entire exhibit devoted to high heels. Currently at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the show goes on tour this Spring.

"Women used to wear hats all the time, they used to wear gloves all the time," she said. "And they don't anymore for the most part. But they still wear high-heeled shoes."

But interestingly enough, women weren't the first wore them. High-heeled shoes were first worn by MEN. And these heels weren't as much about mobility as nobility.

One painting in the exhibition show King Louis XIV of France wearing very high, red-heeled shoes. "Height and elevation has always had something to do with indicating class, privilege, power," said Small.

Women began to adopt high heels for many of the same reasons. One of the oldest pairs on display is a 16th century shoe called the chopine.

"The chopine is definitely a platformed shoe," said Small. "They had very, very high platforms, but aristocratic women wore them because the longer your dress was and the more sumptuous fabric that you had to use, the more you were signaling how wealthy you were."

And were they easy to walk in? No, said Small.

That hasn't changed. And yet, high heels have become a constant staple in women's fashion -- except during the late-18th century, when elevated heels became associated with the excesses of Marie Antoinette.

"And for years, it was all about flats," said Small. "Flat slippers, that was the height of fashion! But then slowly, as the 19th century continued, heels inevitably came back into fashion."

Heels reached new heights and proportions in the 1940s and '50s, when technology made the stiletto (or what is also called the killer heel) more stable.